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Doing clever things with computers has been a business imperative since the post-war years of the first commercial mainframes. Artificial intelligence (AI) signals an important leap forward: computers doing clever things with your business.

Finding AI opportunities to capitalise on

Many of the eye-catching stories around AI are either very niche or very consumer-led propositions – rather than directly applicable to a typical business. The ‘niche’ group tend to be applications developed by organisations, academic research teams and individual enthusiasts to get a specific problem cracked. At their heart is a huge, long-term investment in processing resources, and a painstaking effort to produce and test highly complex algorithms. Examples include Aaron, the AI-artist that collaborates with its human mentor and Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX helicopter which can be deployed close enough to fight wildfires in raging temperatures. At night.

This necessity for resources leads to the thinking behind the second group – consumer-led developments – designed to recoup the necessary investment by appealing to the largest possible addressable markets. Apple, Google, Tesla and Uber are just some of the names investing billions in this technology, aspiring to provide products like AI-driven ‘personal assistants’ that converge the concepts of intelligent internet search and productivity apps for every citizen, and super-safe, AI-driven cars that redefine personal transportation.

Before we explore a few examples of AI that you can actually start taking advantage of today, it’s worth considering automation – a slightly earlier step in the IT evolutionary cycle that some organisations might have missed.

You can reap the benefits of automation right now

Automation falls short of AI, in the same way that Neanderthal man doesn’t quite cut as a dinner party guest. But that still makes it a hugely important change agent for organisations seeking to improve the performance of their business processes while reducing costs.

My point is that, for organisations that haven’t yet exhausted the opportunities for automation, the power of AI reasoning might be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. There are many tasks that humans perform which don’t require them to do much problem solving and reasoning at all. When you muse on the future opportunities around ‘AI’, are you actually overlooking the clear-and-present ones around automation?

Take the noble profession of accountancy. According to an NPR research study, up to 95% of accountants face losing their jobs in the long-term as AI replaces them. Such claims have been largely debunked, though the industry accepts that automation still has some distance to travel.

“Will AI reduce the need for accountants? The answer is probably yes,” said Richard Anning from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. “But you have to define what an accountant is. If you’re looking at some of the more repetitive bookkeeping or process-driven tasks, those are more likely to be subject to automation than the higher value tasks.”

AI for every business

Lots of commentators in this debate are blurring the lines between AI and automation. When it comes to a typical business, there are four key areas where new developments in data and software intelligence are having a significant impact:

Sales & Marketing

The science of selling consistently and repeatedly has led to the emergence of ‘marketing automation’ platforms; a pre-cursor to even more advanced customer interaction and sales execution systems. Salesforce’s recently launched AI module ‘Einstein’ is being touted as an on-demand ‘data scientist’ for customers of the SaaS based CRM.


As outlined above, the financial and accountancy processes within organisations appear ripe for not just AI, but more rudimentary automation activities that don’t necessitate ‘thought’. Start-up SaaS provider SMACC touts its offering as next-generation AI-enabled financial management for SMBs. But isn’t it just a clever take on automation?

Employee productivity

AI assistants, personal assistants and virtual assistants are all variations on a theme, describing a new paradigm in productivity application that helps you find information, remember important stuff and learn to anticipate the things you want to know, using artificial intelligence. Like Holly from Red Dwarf, but with better hair.

IT Operations

A conspicuously large proportion of IT budget is still spent on keeping-the-lights-on operations, compared to truly enabling and/or revenue-generating innovation. Machine-learning, pattern recognition and other AI principles are increasingly used to improve the performance of complex IT environments, from the dynamic processing of virtual workloads to the rapid isolation and neutralisation of unknown cyber threats.

Automation is what IT is for; it’s what you program software and hardware to do when you aren’t there to keep an eye on them. The limiting factor is intelligence. Prior to the development of AI, it was impossible to teach software and hardware to actually think and learn autonomously. That’s what makes it so exciting.

AI is a chance for businesses to accelerate what technology can do without humans hanging around. However you feel about that future, and whenever it arrives, first don’t let today’s automation opportunities pass you by.